Sci-Fi Circuit: Getting a Grip on the Sci-Fi Market with Writer Dan Gordon

dan-gordonBy now you know how fascinated I am in not only how to write a great sci-fi script, but also in what it takes to break into the market as a sci-fi screenwriter.

So when I heard that screenwriter Dan Gordon had recently had a sci-fi screenplay optioned, I reached out to him to get the inside scoop. Dan’s a writer that’s been around the block a few times and has a solid handle on not only writing amazing sci-fi but also some fascinating insights into what makes the industry tick — particularly because he’s seen it from the inside out working as a reader for a production company.

Dan, thanks for being open to being interviewed about your recent option! Can you tell us about how the deal came to pass? Is this your first?

Actually, this is my second option, but that first one was years ago, so… It’s essentially a first option.

The key was having a timely, well written script. The second part was networking. Here’s how it went down: I’m at a yoga retreat in Santa Barbara where I meet this actress on the retreat and we hit it off. We both like Monty Python, Star Trek, and of course yoga. I share I’m a writer and just finished this script I’m quite jazzed about (I used the ScreenwritingU ProSeries for the rewrite). I pitch the story and she wants to read it.

Well, she loves the story and gives it to a producer friend, and they decide it’s a perfect fit for their slate. After some negotiating on the option, we have a deal.

I understand that the project is “under wraps” right now. Is there anything you CAN tell us about it?

Yes, it’s “under wraps,” which means I’m not at liberty to discuss ANY of the details of the project, including the title, subject matter and budget except to say that it is a sci-fi project.

What’s your background with sci-fi? Do you have a particular passion for it or is this a one-shot deal?

Science fiction is my genre. I have a degree in Marine Biology and also taught science for twenty years. So, writing sci-fi was a natural outgrowth from my interests. when I realized I wasn’t cut out for research – I found it tedious which resulted in a crisis in my 20s — it finally occurred to me it was because I was always considering “what if?” and then imagining the possibilities.

Science research is quite procedurally intensive and of course you can’t just make up “facts.” I was way more interested in the possibilities and creating outcomes based on that. So, about 15 years ago, I decided to start writing scripts, and most of them have been sci-fi.

What tips or advice do you have for sci-fi writers wanting to break into the marketplace? Is this all about luck? Writing quality? Something else?

First, be patient and learn the craft. I wrote 5 scripts before anyone took me seriously. It took 20 scripts before I got optioned the second time. I don’t consider it luck. You have to know the craft and then you have to know what producers are looking for. You learn a lot from InkTip and IMDb as to what’s marketable now.

If possible, intern at a production company as a reader. I did that when I first came out here to Los Angeles, and it was a fantastic opportunity to learn the business and learn about screenwriting. I was quite fortunate when we moved to Paramount Studios so I could explore the lot and just imagine writing scripts for the next big production. And of course, Star Trek was made there…

More importantly though, I learned how to “not” write a script. I understand now why studio readers and producers get jaded. Here was my breakdown for two years as a reader: I gave a “consider” to 1 script in 50 and a “recommend” to 1 script in 100. That’s right – 1% of the scripts I read felt like a movie. It was easy to give a pass — 99% of scripts are just not there. Some had good ideas, but they lacked in most areas. The funniest part of giving a recommend though was I had developed a reputation for good analysis and producers took me seriously. Very seriously. So when I gave a recommend, I was immediately called into that “office” and had to face three to five eager producers asking me all sorts of questions as to why I recommended the script!

Finally, I would add that good science fiction is good science. I know that sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many countless scripts I read that were “sci-fi” and the writer was either careless with science concepts or facts – here’s one of my favorites, “he (scientist) puts the slide under the microscope and turns the magnification to 100,000x.” Really? The best light microscopes are limited to about 2000x. Remember, I’m a biologist, and of course you might think I’m being anal here, but again, good science fiction is good science, and I was the goto intern when they received a sci-fi script, so… when I read that, my first thought was, “this person doesn’t know how to write sci-fi.” And after reading the script, it was clear — this person didn’t know how to write sci-fi.

What have you learned about the industry and what the market is looking for in terms of sci- fi, based on the response you’ve received?

Well, you have to be patient with pitching sci-fi. It seems to be a cyclical genre. About twelve years ago, I had no problem getting my scripts read. Then I went through a dry spell where no one wanted sci-fi. So I decided to write a romantic comedy. I know, quite a change. But, I consider rom-coms one of the most challenging genres out there –- we all know the outcome, they’re highly structured, dialogue driven — so how do you write one that’s original? Always liking a challenge, I wrote one and pitched it and was quite astonished at the responses I got – everyone wanted to read it. So, I learned, certain genres are way more market friendly.

Recently at the InkTip Pitchfest, I encountered a lot of requests for sci-fi and horror scripts for under $3 million. Most wanted scripts for under a million. I think with CGI costs down, producers can make low budget horror that looks great. Very few wanted just pure sci-fi, so you have to learn to be patient or adjust your pitch to fit the market. Fortunately for me, I write sci-fi that has broad appeal, usually, and I felt would fit their needs. Then when I got home, I had to do page 1 rewrites to match the request of the producers. Yikes!

The other issue is always cost. Because we imagine so many cool things in this genre, you have to be sensitive to the producer’s needs. Special effects, exotic aliens, unique or futuristic sets are usually expensive. When you’re breaking in, if your script is loaded up like the new Star Trek movies, you’re lowering your chances because it won’t work within today’s low budget requirements.

What recommendations do you have for other writers looking to get traction in the market with sci-fi projects?

As I mentioned, know your craft, which always means a great story with great characters. I know, sounds easy. But if you look at the most successful sci-fi shows, it was always about the characters. Star Trek comes to mind. The X-files. Those characters are wonderful and the stories were fantastic.

And write with low budget in mind. That requires creative solutions to furthering the science fiction narrative without being costly. The first script I optioned was at the time low budget, because I chose to make the alien well, human, or at least indistinguishable from a human. I then built the story around an alien who appears human. I use that script now as a writing sample.

What were your early sci-fi influences? What are your favorites now? What have you learned from them?

I’ll never forget the first time I saw 2001 in the theater as a kid. I was about 8 and remember sitting there thinking, “I’m seeing the future.” I was transported in time. Even though I had no idea what the story was about, I realized then I wanted to make movies. It was an awe-inspiring film and still is my favorite.

I already mentioned Star Trek and my other childhood favorite was The Outer Limits. The Outer Limits is a great example of sci-fi done well on a modest budget. Highly creative stories with aliens or humans who usually develop some kind of special power and the outcome usually scared the hell out of me as a child.

As far as writers: Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and H.G. Wells — all highly imaginative, great story tellers with boundless originality.

Recently, I like the first Matrix movie, the new Star Trek movies, though I found it sacrilegious how they vaporized Vulcan and mixed Spock with Uhura… illogical, but well done. The Batman trilogy, I know not sci-fi, but it has that fantasy element and cool technology that works for me.

What I’ve learned? Create great characters, invent imaginative stories, know the science, and always remember the coolness factor, whereby the writer asked the question “What if?” and generates a whole universe based on that one question.

What are your next steps with this project?

Getting the movie made. <Grin>

Thanks, Dan!

Dan Gordon is a sci-fi screenwriter based in Santa Monica. He’s written over 20 scripts, 3 television pilots, and is currently hard at work on 4 more projects, because he’s obsessive about writing the next sci-fi masterpiece. You can follow Dan online on Facebook, here.

Thanks for reading.

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